Robert Tombs: Gaullist Sarkozy is no French Thatcher, says British historian

Historians in the News

France's presidential election has been depicted as the moment when the country could finally choose the path of liberal economic reform, bending to the winds of globalisation by choosing the pro-market agenda of Nicolas Sarkozy.

But nothing could be further from the truth, according to British historian Robert Tombs, who says the most that can be expected from a Sarkozy victory over Socialist Segolene Royal on Sunday is "some tweaking round the edges" of the French state-centred social model.

"There is an idea doing the rounds that Sarkozy is a kind of French Margaret Thatcher. But I don't think such a creature exists. Not least because no-one in France wants a French Thatcher," Tombs said in a telephone interview from his office at Cambridge University.

"If you contrast the positions of France today and Britain in the late 1970s, it's clear that even though there is certainly a sense of crisis in France, it is nothing like as severe as what Britain was going through when Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979.

"Then from a historical perspective, there is the fact that France completely lacks the liberal tradition. Over the last 200 years the only time that France had a liberal economic policy was in the 1860s under emperor Napoleon III, and it lasted just 10 years.

"Britain by contrast has been under the sway of free-market economics since the 1840s. The only time it wasn't was just after World War II, and in a sense Mrs Thatcher's reforms were simply a return to tradition. But in France they would be against the grain of history.

"The other point is that there are major forces in Britain in favour of liberalisation, led by the City (London's financial district). But in France there is no equivalent. There is no nexus of interests pressing for globalisation.

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